Andy Fass entered a Yankee Stadium suite Wednesday morning to a sea of family, friends, Yankee players and reporters. He could have reacted like any 5-year-old. He could have been shy, overwhelmed, shocked or hysteric.
But that's not how the face of albinism inspiration rolls.
Andy, who suffers from oculocutaneous albinism, embraced his welcome party. The Hamilton, N.J., native hugged family and friends, high-fived Yankees players CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Clay Rapada and opened gifts from the organization. When the media brigade cornered Andy, he did not stress. Instead, he held his own press conference and even grabbed a hold of a few TV microphones.
It would have been tough for an outsider to guess Andy lives a challenged lifestyle. His albinism, which is genetic, has left him legally blind, without pigment in the skin and unable to spend extended periods of time in the sun.
Andy was honored on the third day of the Yankees' HOPE Week (Helping Others Persevere & Excel) when the organization reaches out to a different individual, family or organization worthy of recognition and support. All players, coaches, front office staff and minor league affiliates contribute in at least some way to the week. The Yankees honored Fass and NOAH (The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) to raise albinism awareness.
The team would not have known about Andy had it not been for a chance encounter with another Andy.
The story starts back in mid-April. Andy's sister, Katie, was going to be honored at a Trenton Thunder game for an academic award, and the Fass family had three games to choose from. They chose to attend a Wednesday night game on April 25.
A problem soon developed. Shortly before game day, the Yankees announced Andy Pettitte would be making a rehab start at Trenton on April 25. When Andy's father Marc went to buy tickets the day before the game, his only option was standing-room only.
Knowing it would be tough for Andy to stay focused on a game standing the entire time, Marc opted to buy only two tickets for his daughter and himself.
Then things started to go the Fass' way. Well, after Marc took action.
"While I'm not proud of this, I went home and posted on Facebook a disparaging comment about Andy Pettitte," Marc said. "It was something to the effect of 'thanks for ruining a great family night, Andy Pettitte.' Well, that kind of started the wheel spinning. Friends of ours said they had season tickets to the Thunder, and they said even though they had given the tickets away, they might be able to get them back for us."
The friends got the four tickets back, and the Fass family went to the game.
Andy, Katie, Marc and Andy's mom, Jill, sat in the front row at Mercer County Waterfront Park. Those seats gave the Fasses close access to the Thunder starting pitcher, Pettitte.
When Pettitte walked by after throwing his bullpen session, he turned to the crowd to give away his warm-up ball. The five-time world champion spotted Andy and gave the boy the ball. Andy's impaired vision restricted him from seeing the object in his hands was a baseball, but Marc and Jill witnessed a life-changing moment for their son.
"Andy looks down, looks at it, turns to me and says what is this?" Marc said. "Why did that man give it to me?"
"My husband told him what it was and he put it in the backpack really quick before he could throw it out because he would have thrown it out," Jill said.
"Andy's thinking we don't take things from strangers and, that ball's his: I need to give it back to him, Marc said of the moment.
A family friend got Pettitte to sign the ball after the game and a groundbreaking passion developed. Andy decided he wanted to play baseball. Marc and Jill granted their son's wish. Since the game, Andy has been playing T-ball.
"He started watching the game and he was really into the game and he said, 'I want to do this, I want to do this,' so we signed him up and he's doing it now and it's amazing watching him," Jill said. "Nothing can really stop him so far."
Jill wrote a thank-you note to the Thunder, which led to the Yankees' interest in Andy's story. The organization sent the Fasses a pair of hats in the mail and invited Andy into the press box during a Mother's Day game -- Pettitte's first MLB start of the season -- then brought him back for HOPE Week.
For now, Andy's T-ball career remains indoors because sunlight poses a threat, but the Fasses plan to move their son's game outside next spring.
"He'll hopefully get like a big orange ball for him to see the ball better and then pitching should be very interesting," Jill said. "If the sun's in his eyes, he will not be able to see the ball. He'll wear some dark glasses and hope he does not get hit. If he gets hit, we'll send him back out there again."
In the Fass household, life is about what one can do, not what one cannot do. Marc believes that by keeping his son's boundaries to a minimum, Andy will find happiness. He preaches others do the same.
"If you make him feel like there's limits, if you make him feel like there's something wrong about him, it's really going to hurt his psyche," Marc said. "You can't plan for everything in life. You have to roll with it."
The Fasses have rolled with the punches for the five and a half years of Andy's life, and Wednesday's tribute recognized the family's perseverance. When Andy entered his suite for the game, he was very humble.
"It's good ... a miracle," he said about the experience. "It's like wow, like what my dream was."
Dozens of reporters surrounded Andy with questions about his T-ball career, but Andy wanted to get one point across: He's just another kid.
"Do you have trouble seeing the ball?” a reporter asked.
"Yes, and I have blond hair,” Andy said matter-of-factly. He knows he has trouble seeing, but to Andy, it is just another genetic part of life.
When the conversation turned to Pettitte, Fass' eyes lit up. "He's the best player in the world,” Andy said. He followed by whipping his arm as fast as possible, saying, "He throws like this."
Jill can explain. "He just wants to show Andy [Pettitte] that he can throw a ball too.”
Andy got his chance to throw. He tossed the first pitch of the game (which was just a bit outside). While in the dugout before the game, Andy passed his hero, Pettitte, who he refers to as a friend, in the dugout. The duo exchanged a high five, and 5-year-old Andy wished 40-year-old Andy good luck.
Andy and Andy met again three hours later. Fass had come down to the field level again to shake hands with the Yankees after their 5-4 victory. This time, Pettitte was not as upbeat. In the fifth inning, Pettitte took a comebacker off the leg and fractured his fibula. Like Fass, Pettitte tried to roll with the punches. He took warm-up pitches and even threw one more in-game pitch before leaving. Like a legally blind child with albinism trying to play sports, Pettitte tried to keep going on one leg.
Pettitte explained to Fass he would not be able to attend an after-party at the MLB Fan Cave in Manhattan. Pettitte and other Yankees were scheduled to attend with other children who suffer from oculocuatneous albinism.
Of course, Andy Fass rolled with the punches.
He traveled with Sabathia, Hughes, Rapada, Derek Jeter, Chris Stewart and coaches Kevin Long, Rob Thompson and Mick Kelleher down to the MLB Fan Cave. No Pettitte, but no complaints.
Andy entered the Fan Cave holding Sabathia's hand to yet another surprise. He had no idea some of his friends in the albinism community would be waiting for him. "They told us we weren't allowed to bring any friends," Andy said. "They tricked us."
At the Fan Cave, Andy went down the slide, played skee ball and showed off his T-ball skills to family and friends. For Andy and the other albinism children, there were no hardships in the Fan Cave.
Well, unless one of the children challenged Jeter to skee ball (the guy's competitive).
The Yankee captain participated in his fourth HOPE Week this year, and he believes the idea has become an important part of pinstripes. "This is a fun week for us, our whole organization, the players, coaches, ownership," Jeter said. "I think it brings awareness to some extraordinary people in the community. I think a lot of times people do great things, and it goes unnoticed."
But Jeter was worried about one thing. He heard Andy played some T-ball at the Fan Cave, but he did not know which other Yankees had given Andy pointers. "Did he get good coaching? Who was helping him out?" Jeter said. "If it was one of the pitchers, I don't know how good he's going to do in T-ball."
Like Jeter, Sabathia celebrated his fourth HOPE Week Wednesday. One of the aspects of HOPE Week the southpaw is particularly fond of is the wide range of players who participate in the events. "The fact that everybody shows up and signs up means a lot to us and it's not only a chance for us to give back in the community,” he said. "It's a chance for us to get to bond off the field, so HOPE Week has been very special to us and hopefully we can just keep going."
Moments before Sabathia surprised Andy at the suite early in the morning, he was placed on the disabled list with a strained groin. Lucky for Sabathia, he got a little pick-me-up from Andy's story.
"It's definitely inspiring," he said. "Knowing everything that he's going through, being able to put a smile on his face everyday, even his parents, being a parent myself, going through that, I can learn a lot from them. It's very special to come out here and share it with these people."
During the after-party, the Yankees gave Andy a $10,000 check to NOAH. For Andy's family -- Marc and Jill are responsible for reaching out to families of newborns with albinism on behalf of NOAH -- as well as other families affiliated with NOAH, this was an emotional moment.
Andy Fass' journey from minor league spectator to T-ball pioneer to Yankee Stadium celebrity is not just about Andy beating his own boundaries. It is a story of inspiration that can change the landscape of the oculocutaneous albinism community.
"With this story going out, I truly think it will bring awareness to it and for the kids that have it, they’ll see him and say, you know, if he can do that, so can I," said Tom Loughrey, Andy's uncle. "And maybe it will get them out there to be more active. It'll give them the strength inside to say I can do this."
Jill sees Andy's story as not just one that can change children's thoughts, but also parents' minds. "I think it'll be a major impact if albinism kids try it and for the parents who are probably a little bit nervous about letting them try, maybe they'll see this and go OK, go ahead and do it. and that’s what kind of comes out of this, let him do it."
Andy's parents expect many new adventures and challenges to arise in Andy’s baseball career. They realize he will again face bridges when he attempts to play T-ball outside and maybe baseball one day.
For now, Andy needs to focus on his next big life step: School.
"What's the next big thing after this baseball game? Probably kindergarten in the fall," Marc said. "It's a huge adjustment for a child and we have no doubt Andy's going to thrive."
Andy has made a living off thriving. He seems to achieve anything he tackles. As a result, 45,099 people got to learn about his heavy heart at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. For Andy's family, it was quite a sight.
"We've known for quite some time how special Andy is," Marc said. "Now, others are finding out, as well."
The Fasses, NOAH and the albinism community still have a long way to go. Marc and Jill's T-ball playing son still has a whole world to inspire. Marc Fass just wants people to understand his son is no different than anyone else. "A friend that we met with the other night, she's like I just want my children to be normal," he said. "I go, you just have to redefine what normal is. I hate the word normal because there is no such thing."
Marc believes if there is anyone in the world who can eliminate the word 'normal,' it's Andy.
"While Andy is exceptional to us, he's not necessarily exceptional in the world. Well, yet."
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